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In linguistics, inversion is any of several grammatical constructions where

two expressions switch their canonical order of appearance, that is, they invert.
The most frequent type of inversion in English is subjectauxiliary inversion,
where an auxiliary verb changes places with its subject; this often occurs in
questions, such as Are you coming?, where the subject you is switched with the
auxiliary are. In many other languages especially those with freer word order
than English inversion can take place with a variety of verbs (not just
auxiliaries) and with other syntactic categories as well.

When a layered constituency-based analysis of sentence structure is used,

inversion often results in the discontinuity of a constituent, although this would
not be the case with a flatter dependency-based analysis. In this regard inversion
has consequences similar to those of shifting.

Inversion in English

In broad terms, one can distinguish between two major types of inversion
in English that involve verbs: subjectauxiliary inversion and subjectverb
inversion. The difference between these two types resides with the nature of the
verb involved, i.e. whether it is an auxiliary verb or a full verb.

We use inversion in several different situations in English. Inversion just

means putting the verb before the subject. We usually do it in question forms:

Normal sentence : You are tired. (The subject is 'you'. It's before the verb

Question form : Are you tired? (The verb 'are' is before the subject 'you'.
They have changed places. This is called inversion.)

In most English verb tenses, when we want to use inversion, we just move
the verb to before the subject. If there's more than one verb, because a verb tense
has auxiliary verbs for example, we move the first verb.
When do we use inversion?

Of course, we use inversion in questions. But we also sometimes use

inversion in other cases, when we are not making a question.

1: When we use a negative adverb or adverb phrase at the beginning of the


Usually, we put the expression at the beginning of the sentence to

emphasise what we're saying. It makes our sentence sound surprising or striking
or unusual. It also sounds quite formal. If you don't want to give this impression,
you can put the negative expression later in the sentence in the normal
way:Seldom have I seen such beautiful work.
('Seldom' is at the beginning, so we use inversion. This sentence emphasizes what
beautiful work it is.)

I have seldom seen such beautiful work.

('Seldom' is in the normal place, so we don't use inversion. This is a normal

sentence with no special emphasis.)

2: We can use inversion instead of 'if' in conditionals with 'had' 'were' and
'should'. This is quite formal:

Normal conditional : If I had been there, this problem wouldn't have


Conditional with inversion : Had I been there, this problem wouldn't have

Normal conditional : If we had arrived sooner, we could have prevented

this tragedy!

Conditional with inversion : Had we arrived sooner, we could have prevented

this tragedy!
3: We can use inversion if we put an adverbial expression of place at the
beginning on the sentence. This is also quite formal or literary:

On the table was all the money we had lost. (Normal sentence: All the money we
had lost was on the table.)

Round the corner came the knights. (Normal sentence: The knights came round
the corner.)

4: We can use inversion after 'so + adjective...that':

So beautiful was the girl that nobody could talk of anything else. (Normal
sentence: the girl was so beautiful that nobody could talk of anything else.)

So delicious was the food that we ate every last bite. (Normal sentence: the food
was so delicious that we ate every last bite.)
Subjectauxiliary inversion

Main article: Subjectauxiliary inversion

The most frequently occurring type of inversion in English is subject

auxiliary inversion. The subject and auxiliary verb invert, i.e. they switch
positions, e.g.

a. Fred will stay.

b. Will Fred stay? - Subjectauxiliary inversion with yes/no question

a. Larry has done it.

b. What has Larry done? - Subjectauxiliary inversion with constituent question

a. Fred has helped at no point.

b. At no point has Fred helped. - Subjectauxiliary inversion with fronted
expression containing negation (negative inversion)

a. If we were to surrender, ...

b. Were we to surrender, ... - Subjectauxiliary inversion in condition clause
see English subjunctive: Inversion in condition clauses

The default order in English is subjectverb (SV), but a number of meaning-

related differences (such as those illustrated above) motivate the subject and
auxiliary verb to invert so that the finite verb precedes the subject; one ends up
with auxiliarysubject (Aux-S) order. This type of inversion fails if the finite verb
is not an auxiliary:

a. Fred stayed.

b. *Stayed Fred? - Inversion impossible here because the verb is NOT an

auxiliary verb

(The star * is the symbol used in linguistics to indicate that the example is
grammatically unacceptable.)
Subjectverb inversion

The verb in cases of subjectverb inversion in English is not required to be

an auxiliary verb; it is, rather, a full verb or a form of the copula be. If the
sentence has an auxiliary verb, the subject is placed after the auxiliary and the
main verb. For example:

a. A unicorn will come into the room.

b. Into the room will come a unicorn.

Since this type of inversion generally places the focus on the subject, the
subject is likely to be a full noun or noun phrase rather than a pronoun. Third-
person personal pronouns are especially unlikely to be found as the subject in this
construction. For example:

a. Down the stairs came the dog. - Noun subject

b. ? Down the stairs came it. - Third-person personal pronoun as subject; unlikely
unless it has special significance and is stressed
c. Down the stairs came I. - First-person personal pronoun as subject; more
likely, though still I would require stress

There are a number of types of subject-verb inversion in English: locative

inversion, directive inversion, copular inversion, and quotative inversion. See the
article on subject-verb inversion.

Inversion in other languages

Certain other languages, in particular other Germanic languages and

Romance languages, use inversion in broadly similar ways to English, such as in
question formation. The restriction of inversion to auxiliary verbs does not
generally apply in these languages; subjects can be inverted with any type of verb,
although particular languages have their own rules and restrictions.

For example, in French, tu aimes le chocolat is a declarative sentence

meaning "you like chocolate". When the order of the subject tu ("you") and the
verb aimes ("like") is switched, a question is produced: aimes-tu le chocolat? ("do
you like chocolate?"). In German, similarly, du magst means "you like", whereas
magst du can mean "do you like?".

In languages with V2 word order, such as German, inversion can occur as

a consequence of the requirement that the verb appear as the second constituent in
a declarative sentence. Thus if another element (such as an adverbial phrase or
clause) introduces the sentence, the verb must come next, followed by the subject.
An example is: Ein Jahr nach dem Autounfall sieht er wirklich gut aus, literally
"A year after the car accident, looks he really good". The same occurs in some
other West Germanic languages, like Dutch, where the previous sentence would
be Een jaar na het auto-ongeval ziet hij er werkelijk goed uit. (In such languages,
inversion can function as a test for syntactic constituency, since precisely one
constituent may surface preverbally.)

In languages with free word order, inversion of subject and verb or of

other elements of a clause can occur more freely, often for pragmatic reasons
rather than as part of a specific grammatical construction.

Theoretical analyses

Syntactic inversion has played an important role in the history of linguistic

theory because of the way it interacts with question formation and topic and focus
constructions. The particular analysis of inversion can vary greatly depending on
the theory of syntax that one pursues. One prominent type of analysis is in terms
of movement in transformational phrase structure grammars.[2] Since these
grammars tend to assume layered structures that acknowledge a finite verb phrase
(VP) constituent, they need movement to overcome what would otherwise be a
discontinuity. In dependency grammars in contrast, sentence structure is less
layered (in part because a finite VP constituent is absent), which means that
simple cases of inversion do not involve a discontinuity;[3] the dependent simply
appears on the other side of its head. These two competing analyses are illustrated
with the following trees:
The two trees on the left illustrate the movement analysis of subject-
auxiliary inversion in a constituency-based theory; a BPS-style (bare phrase
structure) representational format is employed, where the words themselves are
used as labels for the nodes in the tree. The finite verb will is seen moving out of
its base position into a derived position at the front of the clause. The trees on the
right show the contrasting dependency-based analysis. The flatter structure, which
lacks a finite VP constituent, does not necessitate an analysis in terms of
movement, but rather the dependent Fred simply appears on the other side of its
head Will.